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Medical alert: an app that anticipates suicide

Global Goals & Global Society
Medical alert: an app that anticipates suicide

The Spanish „Searching Help“ app listens to the movements of patients, mostly teenagers, on their cell phones and detects alarming behaviors.

A whatsapp, a tweet or a Google search can reflect suicidal behavior. The Searching Help detects alarming behavior such as searching the Internet for methods to take one's own life. It instantly notifies healthcare personnel.

In 2020, the year in which the coronavirus pandemic began, 3,941 people committed suicide in Spain, the highest number in history, according to data from the National Statistics Institute (INE).

Eugenia Ponte, psychologist and executive director of Searching Help, stresses that the "silence" surrounding serious mental health problems is their main "accomplice", as it hinders early detection of possible suicidal tendencies.

That is why a few months ago they took up the project of this app, devised by the advertising agency Yslandia in 2017, which is already in the trial phase with 1,100 patients from the psychiatry unit of the 12 de Octubre hospital in Madrid and with another test group of 30 people, many of them teenagers.

The project will receive one of the Red Cross "Humanitarian Technology" awards at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona.


„Searching Help“, as one of its creators points out, is downloaded onto the patient's device, always with their consent and that of their guardian, if they are minors, and works "in the background". "The patient forgets that it is installed," says Ponte.

A simple message to a friend, the publication of a tweet or even a period of inactivity-which can indicate a depressive state-are enough for the application, which has a set of "pre-designed rules" translated into suicide risk indicators, to act.

Depending on the typology of the behavior, which can be related to suicidal ideation, planning or action, „Searching Help“ sends an instant alert to a medical portal, where it indicates whether the risk is high, medium or low.

"It is then that the professional-psychologist or psychiatrist-receives the alert and, depending on the risk involved, can bring forward the appointment with the patient, make an urgent one, or take any other measure he or she considers," explains Ponte.

For example, it is common for patients who reach a state of suicidal planning to do Google searches related to the most effective methods for taking their own lives, although law enforcement agencies track these websites and continuously eliminate them.


While it is installed on the device, the app "learns from itself", since thanks to artificial intelligence technology it is able to assume the user's usual behaviors -for example, their schedules of use of certain applications- to detect possible anomalies in the future.

It also has this capacity at a collective level, since it readapts its operation according to the data it receives and interprets from the activity of all its users.

The project, which involves a civil society group of psychologists, psychiatrists and linguists -who propose the terms that constitute the risk indicators-, is currently in the trial phase, to be tested for six months by 1,100 psychiatric patients at the 12 de Octubre-hospital.

Asked about the long-term objectives of „Searching Help“, Ponte replies that "hopefully it will be recommended" to anyone who asks for help on the new national suicide prevention telephone number, 024.

Despite the new public policies for mental health, Ponte believes that "there is a lack of visibility" and considers that the protocols, such as the suicide prevention protocol, are "insufficient". From „Searching Help“, he explains, they are already working on other projects to do their bit against serious problems such as bullying or eating disorders also in matter to achieve the Sustainable Development Goal 3 – Good Health and Well-being.

Suicide is a serious public health problem that can have long-lasting effects on individuals, families, and communities. The good news is that suicide is preventable. Preventing suicide requires strategies at all levels of society - . This includes prevention and protective strategies for individuals, families, and communities. Everyone can help prevent suicide by learning the warning signs, promoting prevention and resilience, and a committing to social change.


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